We’re days way from the final preseason game and less than a week away from the cutdown to a 53 man roster, if you can believe it. Pretty soon, the coaching staff will have to finalize a roster and effectively decide their starters and major contributors for the season ahead, even if they can of course make some adjustments via post-cutdown additions.
That means it’s an ideal time to look at the ongoing competition for starting jobs, whether they be settled or wide open. Today, we’ll start with the offense.
Backup quarterback: TBD
The Josh Rosen signing doesn’t add any clarity here. I have no idea if Rosen can make his case for the backup job in basically one week—and there was no practice yesterday, mind you—and whether Feleipe Franks can actually grab and hold on to the #2 job himself. The most likely course of action still seems to be this team trotting both out in the final preseason game and ultimately choosing from what could be a decent list of freshly cut quarterbacks once they trim their roster down to 53 players.
3rd and 4th running back: Qadree Ollison/Caleb Huntley
The surprising Javian Hawkins release yesterday put Ollison and Huntley on very good footing, with only D’Onta Foreman left to challenge them for these spots. Ollison missed some time and was not hugely impressive on Saturday night against the Dolphins, but he’s been here the longest and the coaching staff has given every indication that they like him enough to keep him around. Huntley, to his eternal credit, has looked like the best back the Falcons have trotted out in preseason in both games thus far, and generally looks like someone who could contribute right now for Atlanta.
Foreman showed physicality and resilience when called upon, plunging into the end zone for a touchdown, but he’s been here a shorter time and will need to do more to distinguish himself to push by Ollison and Huntley. If Huntley keeps running like he has—and shows pass catching and pass protection chops—he may enter the year with a larger-than-expected role.
5th wide receiver: Too close to call
I believe Scott Bair at AtlantaFalcons.com when he projects five receivers, because my standing theory all along has been that the Falcons will carry four tight ends and consider Cordarrelle Patterson their de facto sixth wide receiver. I also believe that Tajae Sharpe is probably the favorite for fourth receiver duties, as he’s been a favored target for both A.J. McCarron and Feleipe Franks and is familiar with Arthur Smith. The question is who takes the fifth and final job.
Austin Trammell was limited by injury and cut yesterday, so he’s out. That leaves Frank Darby, Christian Blake, Juwan Green, Trevor Davis, Chris Rowland and rookie undrafted free agent Antonio Nunn as competitors for the gig. If Avery Williams wins the punt returner job, the Falcons would have to love Rowland or Davis as receivers to keep them around, and Green and Nunn haven’t stood out in game action. I’d put this one between Darby and Blake.
Darby was the new regime’s lone draft pick at receiver and is an interesting player, but Blake is a veteran who has shown a consistent ability to stick around, had a quiet but efficient year as a receiver in 2020 and has some proven special teams value. I’d bet on Blake today with Darby hitting the practice squad, but it’s close enough that a big preseason effort might flip that on its head.
Left guard: Josh Andrews
Reporters noted early on that Josh Andrews was getting a lot of first team reps at left guard in minicamp and OTAs, and some went so far as to call him the favorite for the job. That seemed premature to me at the time, but it has been borne out in the coming months.
Jalen Mayfield spent most of camp and the first preseason game competing at right tackle, and while Drew Dalman and undrafted free agent Ryan Neuzil have been among those doing good things at guard, there haven’t been any indications the Falcons are planning to pivot away from Andrews at the last moment. I have serious, serious concerns about his pass protection over the course of a full 17 game season, but his run blocking has been very solid throughout camp and preseason and he appears locked in. I’m hoping he’ll surprise me in the regular season.
Center: Matt Hennessy
This hasn’t even been much of a battle. Drew Dalman held up well against the Dolphins, I thought, but the Falcons have treated him like a clear cut backup to Hennessy through most of camp and certainly thus far through preseason. Hennessy hasn’t taken a preseason snap, which has been the case for most of the locked-in starters on this team, and it appears he has the job sewn up. Dalman will hope to build on his solid preseason next year and challenge for the starting job, particularly if Hennessy falters in 2021.
Right tackle: Kaleb McGary
Bluntly, this is the only thing that makes sense at this point. Matt Gono is out, Jalen Mayfield has not distinguished himself at tackle and Willie Beavers has been alright but not spectacular, not to mention playing both tackle spots in seeming preparation for swing tackle duties. This coaching staff would have to think McGary is not healthy or otherwise unready not to give him the job Week 1, because he’s the best man for the job today.
We’ll get a better sense of whether the Falcons think that’s true on Sunday if they trot out their first team line and McGary’s on it, but I’ve got him penciled in as the winner, same as I have ever since we learned Gono was hurt.
Who do you have winning these battles?